Mount Athos

Before dawn, I step back in time, onto the cobblestone streets of Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos, the oldest monastic republic in the world and the bastion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. My footsteps echo off the Byzantine stone walls of the narrow street. I am not alone. I hear panting and shuffling behind me. An old monk with his head down, face obscured by a wild white beard knotted with dirt and sweat, strains to catch up to me. His frayed black cassock, sashed with a thick leather belt and buckled with a large wooden cross, shines with oily antiquity. He looks as worn and medieval as the stone buildings around me. He moves nervously. His hands are clasped in prayer and they tremble. He frantically kisses a tiny wooden cross that hangs by a piece of twine around his neck. He hisses venomously and moans like a wounded animal while intermittently pointing at the ground.

He seems overwhelmed with grief or in some grave danger. I’m completely perplexed. Then, at my feet, he falls to his knees and claws at my legs and ankles in a desperate attempt to pry my shoes off the dusty cobblestone.

I recall what was printed in big bold letters on the pamphlet I read about rules of conduct and dress on Mount Athos: "LET US REPEAT, YOU ARE ON SACRED GROUND, MIRACLES DO OCCUR HERE."

In tears, and between agonized breaths, the monk wrestles with my legs and shoes. I drag him a few feet but his clutch is relentless and fast. It would be frightening if he were not such a frail old man. Just as I lean down to pry him off, as tenderly as I can, two other monks appear at the scene. Then, after one of them inscribes a cross in the dust on the cobblestones, close to one of my foot prints, the zealous little monk relaxes his grip. His furor came from noticing that my footprints were in the shape of crosses. The ordeal ends only after I remove both my shoes. This is my first day of 30 on Mount Athos.

From Karyes I walked and took boats, and then donkeys to visit the monasteries. I ended up spending most of my time with the icon painters. For 16 of his 35 years, monk Monachos Gregorius has lived away from the main monastery of St. Panteleimon in the small Skete of Xenephonos. He left his job as an electrician in Australia and is now an accomplished icon painter like his paternal father, a priestmonk who shares a kalyve, or cottage, with him. They are commissioned to paint icons for Orthodox churches around the world.

Connected to their studio is a chapel and cozy sitting room. It is warm with the smell of smoke and kerosene, and soft with morning light. The elder monk serves small cups of strong Greek coffee, chunks of sweet jellied Turkish candy called "loukoumi", and glasses of potent distilled grape liquor called Raki. He declines, but motions encouragingly for me to help myself. He watches in silence. The light on his face reminds me of a Renoir painting. Among the eight other monks living here, seven are icon painters and one is a hermit. It is 3:00 a.m., the beginning of the day. Mount Athos is on Byzantine time and this is my breakfast.

The hermit lives in total silence and solitude. He sleeps on a bed of olive branches scattered over the floor of a dilapidated stone cottage without doors or windows. He neither works nor produces his own food. Instead, he collects fruits and vegetables off the ground, or receives donations from the other monks who tell me that they have never been invited inside his windowless and door-less one-room stone house. He came here as an orphan and has lived his entire life in seclusion. He considers airplanes evil, work to be in vain and even eating a distraction from his quest for salvation. In the 10 days that I’m here, he never says a word to me. Rather a perfect subject, because he goes on about his business without paying any attention to me. A lot of the time he simply sits in his cottage and prays. Yet I sensed he wasn’t indifferent. He actually smiled a few times, and once he motioned for me to come into his house.

When Athonite monks die their bodies are washed and wrapped in a cowl and then buried for three years before the bones are exhumed and cleaned.

Thousands of skulls, like books on shelves, four and five deep, line the cob-webbed crypts. The monks call Mount Athos the “window of the soul”.




Robert Semeniuk - Mount Athos, 1982